U.S. reassigns Guantanamo court's top lawyer

MIAMI Fri Sep 19, 2008 6:15pm EDT

Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, Legal Advisor for the Office of Military Commissions, briefs members of the media about the U.S. Military Commissions process, at the legal complex of the U.S. Military Commissions, at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, in Cuba in this June 4, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Brennan Linsley/Pool

Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, Legal Advisor for the Office of Military Commissions, briefs members of the media about the U.S. Military Commissions process, at the legal complex of the U.S. Military Commissions, at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, in Cuba in this June 4, 2008 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Brennan Linsley/Pool

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MIAMI (Reuters) - A U.S. general who was banned from three Guantanamo trials will no longer act as the legal advisor for the Guantanamo war crimes court, the Pentagon said on Friday.

But Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann will still play a role in the terrorism trials at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Pentagon said he had been appointed to the newly created job of operations and planning director for the military tribunals.

As legal adviser since July 2007, Hartmann's job was to provide impartial legal advice to Susan Crawford, the Pentagon appointee who oversees the trials and validates charges for prosecution. The legal adviser also plays a role in the appeals process for prisoners convicted of terrorism charges.

Hartmann was the subject of numerous complaints from military defense lawyers, who alleged that he illegally influenced the cases and essentially took over prosecution duties, in one case withholding a document that could have influenced the decision to validate the charges.

Another general testified in an August hearing that Hartmann was a bully who used a "spray and pray" approach to pursuing cases -- "Charge 'em, charge 'em, charge 'em and let's pray that we can pull this off."

Military judges barred Hartmann from various phases of three trials, and complaints about him were pending in others.

In an August hearing, Hartmann acknowledged telling prosecutors he wanted cases that would "capture the public's imagination."

DIVISIONS WITHIN MILITARY

The allegations against him by his colleagues revealed some of the division within the U.S. military about the tribunal process that human rights monitors had long portrayed as politically driven and rigged to convict.

Friday's Pentagon announcement did not mention the controversy but credited Hartmann with getting the sluggish trials, formally known as military commissions, moving.

"Gen. Hartmann has driven the commissions process forward since his arrival in July 2007. In no small part because of his efforts and his dedication, the commissions are an active, operational legal system," Daniel J. Dell'Orto, the Defense Department's acting general counsel, said in the announcement.

Twenty-four Guantanamo prisoners have been charged under the current trial system that replaced one struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court as illegal in 2006, though charges against one were dismissed.

The United States began sending suspected al Qaeda and Taliban captives to Guantanamo in 2002. Of about 255 detainees now in Guantanamo, government agencies say 60 to 80 face the special military tribunals.

The first full trial was only completed in August, with the conviction of Osama bin Laden's Yemeni driver, Salim Hamdan. He was sentenced to about five more months in prison for providing material support for terrorism.

The deputy legal advisor, Michael Chapman, was appointed as the new legal advisor. He retired from the military as a colonel in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Corps after nearly 30 years of active duty, and had been working with the Guantanamo tribunals since 2005.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. William Kuebler, one of the defense lawyers who succeeded in limiting Hartmann's further involvement in a case, called his reassignment "a thin veneer for what amounts to being fired for his excessive and unlawful interference in the military commissions process."

"The real problem is that simply reassigning the general does not cure the taint resulting from his conduct," said Kuebler, who is defending Canadian captive Omar Khadr in a trial set for November.

Khadr, who is charged with murder and accused of throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier in a firefight in Afghanistan, turned 22 on Friday. He was captured at age 15 and sent to Guantanamo shortly after his 16th birthday.

(Editing by Jim Loney and Jackie Frank)

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